Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, the one with the mature new image, still admits to being a seductress in pain. In Los Angeles, Becky Johnson heard her out on rebellion, religion, and irreconcilable differences.
By now, if you’ve glanced at half the magazines recently gracing the newsstands, you’ve probably noticed that Madonna – the New Madonna – has commanded front and center spot on the shelves. She is everywhere. The New Madonna has long, dark, center-parted hair, she’s still as beautiful as the Old Madonna, but seems more approachable than the platinum-cropped, angular body-Nazi of recent past. British Vogue describes the New Madonna (who peers out in imperial splendor from the cover) as “stepping out of a Renaissance painting, a Mona Lisa… This is the emergence of a new woman, an image that suggests culture clashes and juxtapositions of old and new ideas.” Spin magazine (on whose cover she also appears) says, “The New Madonna has dispensed with denials of her true self. The peroxide is gone, as are the other approximations of kaleidoscopic glamour. What you see is what you get.” Rolling Stone (another cover) flatly states that she is “the world’s most famous woman.” Madonna herself says, “People have certain notions about me, and it is time for a change.”
The occasion which precipitated this flurry of words and magazine covers was the release of Madonna’s new album Like a Prayer. Simultaneous with its release was the highly publicized premiere of her sunny, upbeat Pepsi commercial and the unveiling on MTV of a dark, unsettling music video for the album’s title song. In it Madonna witnesses a murder, falls in love with the black man falsely accused of committing it, dances in front of burning crosses, bears stigmata, and undulates in mesmeric rapture while a gospel choir belts out the song behind her.
Reports of outrage and protests were wildly exaggerated in the press. The video was not banned in Italy. Religious groups took umbrage but launched no organized protest. “This video is only one little narrow piece of a big pie,” stated the Reverend Donald Wildmon, executive director of the American Family Association. “I’m not saying it’s not offensive. It is offensive. But we don’t plan on making a crusade of it.” Rumors circulated that Pepsi intended to pull its Madonna commercial to avoid being mistakenly affiliated with the video, but those also proved to be inaccurate. After much internal debate, Pepsi officials decided to reaffirm their support of Madonna support of Madonna and the advertising campaign. Aside from their reputation, the $5 million reputedly paid to the world’s most famous woman was at stake. In a world of happy endings, the controversy has been a godsend for everyone concerned. Publicity is the name of the game.
“Don’t ask Madonna questions about her image,” warns her publicist, Liz Rosenberg. “She hates that word.” One might logically ask why image-making is irrefutably a key ingredient in the phenomenal success story of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. Born thirty years ago in Bay City, Michigan, the daughter of devout, strict Catholics, she was by her own description an outsider.
“I saw myself as the quintessential Cinderella,” she once told Time magazine. At the age of seventeen, she left Michigan and headed to New York City, where she metamorphosed from scullery maid to princess of the grand ball. One could chart the rise of her immense star to the series of similar transformations which have guided it: from the early unkempt, crucifix-bedecked Boy Toy phase to the tongue-in-cheek Marilyn Material Girl phase to the svelte, silver-topped peep-shows chanteuse of “Open Your Heart.” The unifying element in each of those image changes was the high level of irony articulating the form. Madonna may embrace female stereotypes, but it’s more like a stranglehold than a caress. She seems always to be saying, “Don’t take it too seriously. I don’t.” Which might lead one to believe that these image changes are not merely calculated career moves but forms of self-protection.
Certainly few public figures have had to withstand the same relentless hounding by emotional ambulance chasers as she has. When she married Sean Penn three years ago, a swarm of helicopters buzzed over the ceremony with all the propriety arrogance of vultures. Every tiff and squabble in that volatile union was splashed in bold type on tabloid covers. In January of this year, Madonna filed for divorce from Penn amid more squawking and speculation about violence and abuse at their home in Malibu. Read any article on Madonna and there’s usually some paparazzo freak lurking in the bushes, some horde of inquiring minds waiting outside the door. Madonna is more than a rock star of movie star of cultural queen. She has became a kind of international open territory – everybody feels entitled to a piece of her. It would seem only natural that one way of keeping the wolves at bay would be to change identities and remain elusive, out of reach.
But on the flip side, a few public figures are such wizards at manipulating the press and cultivating publicity as Madonna is. She has always been a great tease with journalists, brash and outspoken when the occasion demanded it, recalcitrant and taciturn when it came time to pull back and slow down the striptease. Madonna is a self-created woman, no question, but it was not a virgin birth: her adroit handling of the press played a major part in the consummation. Publicity is the name of the game.
So, one might logically ask next, what is the New Madonna? Having a achieved a monumental superstardom, which is roughly equivalent to creating a monster, what new identity has she carved out for herself this time? The cynics among as will probably hiss and snort and roll their eyes when the optimists among us tell them that Madonna has grown up, that the New Madonna is in fact a conscious renunciation of all image-making. The cynics will probably say, “Oh, please. Self-revelation is just the nice way of saying self-promotion.”
Her new album, however, is the pudding in which to test the proof. Like a Prayer is an emotionally jarring collection of songs in which the focus turns consistently inward. Madonna emerges as a woman with battle scars, bewildered and saddened by personal losses of love, illusions, and the conviction that one can control all facets of one’s life. Many of the songs are not about Madonna getting what she wants, they’re about realizing she can’t have it. Granted, there are some typical up-tempo life is a fab party tunes, but even those are imbued with a pervasive melancholia. It may be a party, but it’s grueling real soon. Listening to the album, one is struck by how unprotected and vulnerable the world’s most famous woman seems.
After two weeks of Madonna’s having to schedule and then reschedule this interview, having to change dates and times and cancel at the last minute – all owing to the fact that she was busy preparing for her role in Warren Beatty’s new film, Dick Tracy – I finally received the word: “Madonna can see you this Sunday. Four o’clock. Her house.”
The house is perched high in the Hollywood Hills, and on first glance looks almost forbidding. There are no windows in the front. It feels like a fortress. I ring the doorbell. After a moment, Madonna answers the door. And lo and behold, it’s not the New Madonna anymore. It’s the Old Madonna, with a twist. Her hair has been bleached blond again. She’s wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt and slinky Brigitte Bardot sling-black pumps. She smiles warmly and says, “I’m sorry about all the scheduling mix-ups.” I think, well, this is the New Madonna after all. Then she turns on her heels, and as I follow her through the house she says, “But it wasn’t my fault.”
Becky Johnson: Maybe, we should begin this interview with a verbal shit list. What don’t you want to talk about?
Madonna: No four-letter words.
Becky Johnson: I am assuming the ban on four-letter words includes any mention of your estranged husband.
Becky Johnson: Just as a footnote, I read in the Los Angeles Times that you’re doing a big media blitz for the release of your new album, Like a Prayer. I’m sure you know the press will try to badger you with questions about your personal life, so how do you plan to deal with that?
Madonna: Well, generally I do interviews because I have something to talk about in terms of my work, and I try to keep it in that area. I mean, it’s kind of an insult that they want to know those other things. It seems the most important thing to them is to find out… stuff I’d rather not talk about, things that don’t have anything to do with my work. And it’s nobody’s business. But people always want to know what’s not their business.
Becky Johnson: Do you care what people think about you in general?
Madonna: Yes, I do.
Becky Johnson: Are you vulnerable to criticism, to bad press?
Madonna: Absolutely. Definitely.
Becky Johnson: What about one of your other current projects? You’re about to star in Warren Beatty’s film Dick Tracy, playing Breathless Mahoney. What’s she like?
Madonna: What’s she like? She’s… I don’t know. She’s a girl. She’s scarred. She’s a seductress in a lot of pain.
Becky Johnson: Have you spent the last couple of weeks preparing for the role?
Madonna: In terms of Breathless Mahoney, I’ve probably been preparing for the role all my life. [laughs] But superficially, yes… I mean, I had to dye my hair, pluck my eyebrows, have a lot of fittings. Stephen Sondheim is writing songs of the period for the film, so I’ve been working on them, and they’re quite difficult.
Becky Johnson: Why’s that?
Madonna: Because Stephen Sondheim writes in a kind of chromatic wildness. They’re difficult songs to learn. I mean one song is written with five sharps. They’re brilliant, but really complex.
Becky Johnson: Are they mostly torch songs?
Madonna: One is. There are three songs. One is a torch song and another is more up-tempo. It’s kind of like “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” or “Material Girl,” where she keeps singing about how she wants more and more. It’s about gluttony. And it’s funny, it’s ironic. And then the third song is a kind of slow, sad song. I’m going to be singing it with Mandy Patinkin, who plays my accompanist at the nightclub where I work. It’s the kind of song you sing at three in the morning, when the club is empty. It’s very melancholy… just a piano and a voice. But they’re all really different for me, and so I’ve been working very hard to get them right.
Becky Johnson: Do you feel this part is more demanding than a lot of other parts you’ve played?
Madonna: [long pause] Yes and no. I’m different now from when I played those other parts, so everything is different for me. And I think there are a lot more subtleties to her character than it would seem on the surface. So in that respect it’s more demanding for me.
Becky Johnson: You’ve just finished a much-talked-about commercial for Pepsi. It’s apparently the longest television commercial ever made.
Madonna: Uh-huh. I just saw it. I love it.
Becky Johnson: Do they actually run the whole length of your song for it?
Madonna: It’s an edited version of the song. The song on the album is five and a half minutes long. It would be great if they could run a commercial that long, but it’s too much airtime to buy.
Becky Johnson: It’s kind of a dicey proposition, doing a commercial, isn’t it?
Madonna: I had a lot of apprehension about it at first, but we had several meetings, and in the end I got to collaborate with them, I had a lot of input, and they came up with a story that I found to be very touching. I don’t feel I was used, if that’s what you mean.
Becky Johnson: The first video off your new album uses the same song you chose to feature in the commercial, “Like a Prayer.” How would you compare the two treatments of the same song?
Madonna: The treatment for the video is a lot more controversial. It’s probably going to touch a lot of nerves in a lot of people. And the treatment for the commercial is, I mean, it’s a commercial. It’s very, very sweet. It’s very sentimental.
Becky Johnson: It’s the “lite” version. I saw the video. It’s pretty shocking. What struck me most about it is that it’s so unlike anything you’ve done before. It’s frightening. It’s dark. It’s violent. And it’s kind of bleak, despite the religious imagery.
Madonna: Well, originally, when I recorded the song, I would play it over and over again, trying to get a visual sense of what sort of story or fantasy it evoked in me. I kept imagining this story about a girl who was madly in love with a black man, set in the South, with this forbidden interracial love affair. And the guy she’s in love with sings in a choir. So she’s obsessed with him and goes to church all the time. And then it turned into a bigger story, which was about racism and bigotry. I wanted to put something in about Ku Klux Klan, use burning crosses… but then Mississippi Burning came out and I realized I was hitting the nail on the head a little too hard. Too obvious. So I thought I should take a slightly different approach. My original idea was much sadder. Kind of: this is reality, and reality sucks.
Then Mary Lambert got involved as the director, and she came up with a story that incorporated more of the religious symbolism I originally wrote into the song. The whole album has a lot of religious imagery in it. The video still has the sadness, but it’s got a hopeful ending. I mean, I had these ideas about me running away with the black guy and both of us getting shot in the back by the KKK. Completely insane. So Mary made it more palatable.
Becky Johnson: Still, it’s not your standard MTV fare.
Madonna: Well it’s something that I think is really tragic – not just in this country, but everywhere. My only fear is that people aren’t going to get it. It’s too complicated.
Becky Johnson: Oh, I think they’ll get it all right. They might be a little outraged or offended, though. You’re not the Material Girl anymore.
Madonna: That’s why I did it.
Becky Johnson: You just turned thirty last August. How would you say you’ve changed in the last five years?
Madonna: I think… I don’t know… I’ve changed.
Becky Johnson: What do you think are your greatest strengths?
Madonna: [long pause] Well, I’m disciplined. And I’m persevering. And I don’t give up very easily… and I’m reliable.
Becky Johnson: And what would you say are your biggest flaws?
Madonna: [long pause] I’m impatient. I’m intolerant of other people’s weaknesses. And I’m really hard on myself.
Becky Johnson: When you say you’re intolerant of weaknesses, do you mean you find yourself expecting too much of other people?
Madonna: Yeah. Yeah.
Becky Johnson: Is that because you set a standard for yourself and expect others to live up to that standard?
Madonna: Yes. That’s true.
Becky Johnson: What was your reaction to the Madonna “wannabe” craze a few years back?
Madonna: It was on my first tour that I first saw it… and I thought it was amazing, amazing that a certain way I chose to look and dress became an obsession. Certainly it was not what I set out to do. I think those things just happen by chance. I don’t think you can set out to do something like that. But I thought it was really flattering.
Becky Johnson: Aside from copying your style of dress, they looked up to you as a role model. What would you say, as a role model, your responsibility to them?
Madonna: That’s a tough question. Because in a way my first response is: I don’t have a responsibility to them. They decided to look up to me, or use me as a role model. My only responsibility, I think, is just be true to myself.
Becky Johnson: But you said once in another interview that you felt it was important for you to project a life-affirming point of view to your audience. That might be construed as a responsibility.
Madonna: Yes. Because it’s important to me to be positive. I think there’s too much negativity in the world. And I think there aren’t a lot of things which give people relief from that negativity, something life-affirming to look to or look for. I know it sounds trite in a way, but I think it’s important.
Becky Johnson: You also said in the same interview that you didn’t like yourself very much when you were a teenager. You said, “I didn’t think I was beautiful or talented. I spent a lot of time loathing myself and not feeling I fit in, like every adolescent does. When I started dancing, having a dream and working toward that goal – having a sense of discipline – I started to like myself for the first time.” Would you say work is a kind of internal monitoring system for you, a way of keeping the demons of self-loathing at bay?
Madonna: Yeah, but it has everything to do with feeling you can do something well. I mean, something to focus on takes you out of yourself – that’s natural. You don’t sit around all the time feeling you don’t fit in or wondering what you’re supposed to do with yourself for the rest of your life. And especially when you’re a teenager, it’s really important to fit in and feel there’s a reason, for you to be on the earth. You start moving away from your family, feeling like you want to be somebody, do something. And when you find something that you can do, and you can do it well, it gives you reason for living.
Becky Johnson: I guess what interested me about that quote was the revelation of self-doubt or self-loathing and the incredible will to overcome it. You don’t seem even remotely self-destructive.
Madonna: Yeah, well, that’s why I work so hard. I work at not being self-destructive. I think my nature is to fight back, to fight those demons that want to bring me down. I have this motor inside of me that says, No, I will not go down. I feel it pulling at me, and sometimes it’s stronger than at other times. But, yeah, working takes me out of that. And that’s why I work so hard, because obviously I must have a lot of demons I’m fighting.
Becky Johnson: Do you do anything else to keep yourself on an even keel? Like meditate?
Madonna: Well, exercise is absolutely necessary for me, because I don’t dance anymore. Dancing sort of brought me out of myself. Before I started dancing, I felt really physically awkward too. Not comfortable with my body. So what it does for me is twofold. I feel I can purge bad things when I exercise, and I also feel better physically. I feel superior, I feel like a warrior.
Becky Johnson: When you’re everything, are you aware of your thought process, or do you sort of just blank out all thought?
Madonna: You have to concentrate on your breathing when you’re exercising. You don’t really have time to get tripped up on one thought. Everything goes through a processor and kind of gets cleaned out.
Becky Johnson: A little like praying?
Becky Johnson: Do you pray?
Becky Johnson: As regularly as you exercise?
Madonna: Well I don’t pray every day at ten o’clock, but I pray a lot. It sort of happens on and off, whenever I feel like it, throughout the day or week.
Becky Johnson: You were raised a strict Catholic and went to Catholic schools all through your childhood, but you obviously rebelled against your upbringing at some point in your life.
Madonna: Yeah, I did.
Becky Johnson: At what age did you start to rebel?
Madonna: Probably when I was about ten.
Becky Johnson: And what form did the rebellion take?
Madonna: Well, when I was ten I started liking boys. That was the first form. I remember I wanted to chase after boys on the playground, and the nuns told me I couldn’t: that good Catholic girls didn’t chase boys. I didn’t understand what was so bad about it, so I would do it anyway. And I would get punished for it. I also remember being really annoyed that I couldn’t wear pants to school or church. My brothers could, and that seemed to me all locked up with religion. I kept saying to my father, “But why can’t I love God the same way if I have pants on?” [laughs] You know? And my father would always have these stock responses, like “Because I said so.”
So often I would be confused about who I was worshiping, God or my father. Then, as I got older, I hated the idea that I had to go to church all the time. We used to get up every morning at six or seven and go to church for an hour before school. It just seemed like such torture – I mean, school was punishment enough. Then I got into this whole thing with my father about: Why do I have to go to church to pray? Why can’t I take the basic principles of this religion – principles like being good and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you and live them? Why do I have to go to confession to confess my sins? Why can’t I just tell God directly? These things didn’t make any sense to me.
Becky Johnson: Did you ever actually break away from the church?
Madonna: Oh yeah. As soon as I left home. That was one of the great things about leaving home. I moved to New York when I was seventeen, and I had lots of terrible moments. I was afraid, I didn’t know if I’d done the right thing. I missed my family, and then I’d say, well, at least I don’t have to go to church every Sunday. So that was one of the rewards.
Becky Johnson: What aspects of Catholicism have remained with you and shaped your worldview as an adult?
Madonna: Well, I have a great sense of guilt and sin from Catholicism that has definitely permeated my everyday life, whether I want it to or not. And when I do something wrong, or I think is wrong, if I don’t let someone know I’ve wronged, I’m always afraid I’m going to be punished. I don’t rest easy with myself. And that’s something you’re raised to believe as a Catholic. Everyone’s a sinner in Catholicism, and you must constantly be asking God to cleanse your soul and begging him for forgiveness.
I don’t know if this was more my father or Catholicism, but I was also raised to believe that idle time wasn’t good. You always had to be doing something productive, either your schoolwork or prayer or housework, never sitting around and never having too much leisure time. You always had to be challenging your mind or body, and that has definitely shaped my adult life. Also, I think in Catholicism there’s a great sense of family and unity, and even though I’ve been though periods of time where I never wanted to see my family again, they’re very important to me. Families in general are important to me. I was also raised to believe that when you marry someone you marry him for life. You never give up.
Becky Johnson: You were the oldest girl in a family of eight, and spent most of your adolescence running the household and nursing the other kids after your mother died. Did you resent having to do that?
Madonna: I didn’t resent having to raise my brothers and sisters as much as I resented the fact that I didn’t have my mother. And that my ideal of my family was interrupted. My stepmother was very young, and she just wasn’t ready for a billion kids who were extremely unwilling to accept her as an authority figure. So it was rough. We all resented it.
Becky Johnson: You were six when your mother died of cancer. You said in another interview that her death was a turning point in your life – you could either “be sad and weak and not in control, or say that it’s going to be better.” Was your mother a role model for you in that respect? Did she have the same kind of will and strength?
Madonna: I think she had a lot of strength. I didn’t notice it as much when I was younger, but looking back on it… she was ill for a long time and she never allowed herself any sort of self-pity, you know. And we really tortured her when she was sick, because we wanted her to play with us. We wanted her to do things when she was tired, we picked on her all the time because we just didn’t understand. But I don’t think she ever allowed herself to wallow in the tragedy of her situation. So in that respect I think she gave me an incredible lesson.
But in reference to that quote about me not wanting to be sad or weak or not in control, that really came, I think, when my father remarried. Because for the three years before he married, I clung to him. It was like, OK, now you’re mine, and you’re not going anywhere. Like all young girls, I was in love with my father and I didn’t want to lose him. I lost my mother, but then I was the mother, my father was mine. Then he got taken away from me when he married my stepmother. It was then that I said, OK I don’t need anybody. No one’s going to break my heart again. I’m not going to need anybody. I can stand on my own and be my own person and not belong to anyone.
Becky Johnson: Would you say there was a definite change in your personality at that point? Did you go from being introspective to being much more extroverted? Or vice versa?
Madonna: Well, it was at the same time that I started to rebel against religion, to be conscious of what I consider to be the injustices of my religious upbringing. It kind of happened all at once. And yes, I think I was always very outgoing or outspoken. I think I just got even more fearless. Not afraid to say what I felt. Blunt. Lots of mouthing off. [laughs]
Becky Johnson: Are your brothers and sisters like that too? Or are you the only loudmouth in the family?
Madonna: Some of them are really outgoing. Some of them are very introverted. As in all big families, there’s a whole hierarchy and lots of different personalities. There are the dominant forces and the submissive ones.
Becky Johnson: Growing up, were you closer to your sisters or your brothers?
Madonna: I didn’t feel close to anybody in my family when I was growing up. I felt like an outsider in my own house. I didn’t feel close to my older brothers, they were just typical older brothers who tortured me all the time. And I didn’t feel close to my sisters. There was a lot of competition in our family, and I was always vying for my fathers attention and all that, so, I worked really hard in school. I was a straight-A student, and they all hated me for it because I did it more for the position I was going to have in my father’s eyes that for whatever I was going to learn by studying. I just tried to be the apple of my father’s eye. I think everyone else in my family was very aware of it. And I kind of stood out from them.
Then when I got a little older – when I was in high school and started dancing really seriously – I’d say I got closer to my brothers. There was a lot of unspoken competition with my sisters. My oldest brother opened my eyes to lots of things, and I didn’t see him as just my creepy older brother anymore. And my younger brother would come to dance classes with me.
Becky Johnson: Are you close to your father now?
Madonna: Yes, I am.
Becky Johnson: Did you have any heroines or role models when you were a kid?
Madonna: It’s weird, people always ask me that question and I can’t think of anybody specifically. [long pause] I think a few nuns, I thought they were pretty incredible. They seemed all powerful and perfect. Above everything. Really disciplined. And really clean. [laughs] For a while I was obsessed with being a nun, for those reasons. I just thought they were so superior. Then, when I realized that nuns didn’t have a sex life, I was incredibly disenchanted.
Becky Johnson: How old were you when you became aware of sex?
Becky Johnson: [laughs] Really? Do you have any specific memories?
Madonna: Well, I was always very precocious as a child, extremely flirtatious, I mean. I was just one of those little girls who crawled on everybody’s lap. I flirted with everyone – my uncles, my grandfather, my father, everybody. I was aware of my female charm. Then, probably about the same time as I began to rebel against the church and my family, my breasts started to grow. I went through puberty before most of the girls in my class.
Becky Johnson: They must have really loved you.
Madonna: [laughs] They hated me. So right around that time was when I really started to think about sex. About its presence, not about what I was going to do about it. The true sexual awakening, of course, happened much later. [pause] Last year.
Becky Johnson: [laughs] What would you define as the essence of femininity?
Madonna: The essence of femininity? To absolutely love being a woman.
Becky Johnson: It seems to me that one of the reasons you’ve had such a tremendous impact – on women, especially – is that you’re saying it’s time for women to use their sexuality as a strength and as a source of power.
Becky Johnson: Can you elaborate on that subject at all?
Madonna: Well, it seems to me that one of the pitfalls of the women’s movement was that women wanted to be like men. They felt they had to dress like men and behave like men to get anywhere, to be respected or to be in control. To have power. I think that’s bullshit. I think women have always had the power; they just never knew it. And you can be just as powerful being feminine.
Becky Johnson: Would you say that women are stronger than men?
Madonna: That’s a tough one. My first instinct is to say no. They have certain strengths, and men have certain strengths. But then I think that women are more durable. Emotionally, I mean, let’s face it, we have our period every month. [laughs] That really makes you strong.
Becky Johnson: Is vulnerability an important quality to you? Most people equate vulnerability with femininity.
Madonna: Yes, it’s absolutely important. And I think the most interesting men I’ve met are the ones who are in touch with their femininity. They are the strongest men.
Becky Johnson: So what would be the kind of man you dislike?
Madonna: I dislike men who totally suppress their femininity.
Becky Johnson: Do you find that a lot of men feel threatened by you, by your self-confidence and sense of sexual challenge?
Madonna: I think only a few men are threatened by it. I think most men are inspired by it or entertained by it. Or may be challenged by it, but in a good way.
Becky Johnson: Isn’t it true that growing up Catholic you’re cursed with the view of women as either virgins or whores?
Madonna: I was certainly aware of it, but I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t be both.
Becky Johnson: [laughs] This is a quote from a Rolling Stone interview you gave. “I like to create a different character for each album I do.” What motivates you to change your image or to create a new character?
Madonna: Well, I sort of get into certain kinds of moods. And then all the songs I write come out of that mood. I don’t say to myself, Now I’m going to be in that mood. It just happens.
Becky Johnson: Does the music change as a result of your changing the mood?
Madonna: Yes, I would say that.
Becky Johnson: How? Can you give me an example?
Madonna: Well, listen to a song like “Like a Virgin,” and then listen to “Live to Tell.” There’s a different mood in each one. They’re the same person, but it’s just my desire to focus on something different because of a mood I’m in. All the changes in my so-called image are just different facets f me. It’s a matter of what you choose to focus on and how deeply you want to go into it. It’s a matter of being specific, I guess.
Becky Johnson: Does it annoy you that the press has devoted more attention to your image than to your music?
Madonna: It used to annoy me, but now it doesn’t anymore. Because somehow I feel that, as much as people complain and moan and groan and criticize me, they’re affected by me. I’ve touched a nerve in them somehow.
Becky Johnson: In your new album, Like a Prayer, it seems to me there’s no character at play; it’s the most revealing, self-exposed thing you’ve done, and you’ve addressed very personal issues.
Madonna: Yeah, well, that’s the kind of mood I was in. And I have to say – even though I said I didn’t want to talk about Sean – that he was extremely influential in encouraging me to reveal that side of myself.
Becky Johnson: It’s also much more experimental musically.
Madonna: Yeah, it is. I didn’t have the censors on me in terms of emotions or music. I did take a lot more chances with this one, but obviously success gives you the confidence to do those things.
Becky Johnson: How do you develop a song?
Madonna: All different ways. Sometimes, the music is sort of there, already written by either Pat Leonard or Stephen Bray. They give it to me and it inspires or insinuates a lyric or feeling. Then I write out the words in a free form, and we change the music to fit the form. Other times I’ll start out with lyrics, or I’ll have written a poem and I’ll want to put that to music. Then I end up changing the words a little bit to make them more musical. Sometimes I’ll hear the melody in my head. I don’t write music and I don’t read music, so I’ll go to Pat Leonard, who is an extremely talented musician, and I’ll sing it to him and make him play it, making chords out of it. Then I write the words to the song.
Becky Johnson: Do you write the lyrics yourself? Or do your collaborators help?
Madonna: I write all the lyrics myself.
Becky Johnson: Steve Bray said that one of the things that made this new album so different was the fact that you worked with live musicians in the studio.
Madonna: Well, I’ve worked with live musicians before, but this is the first time they were all together in one room, and we did most of the basic tracks with a band playing right there. I sang with them too, and we ended up keeping a lot of those vocals. It made it different, because obviously when the musicians are playing with you, you respond differently from when the track is already done, and you’re by yourself with the headphones on, overdubbing things.
This approach was more integral to the music. I mean, we had every intention of going back and fixing the vocals, but then we’d listen to them and say, “Why? They’re fine.” They were a lot more emotional and spontaneous when I did them with the musicians. It’s probably because I didn’t feel the pressure of knowing that this was going to be the final vocal. So I decided not to go back and clean them up. There are weird sounds that your throat makes when you sing: p’s are popped, and s’s are hissed, things like that. Just strange sounds that come out of your throat, and I didn’t fix them. I didn’t see why I should. Because I think those sounds are emotions too.
Becky Johnson: Did you work out the idea for the album in advance, or did it slowly evolve in the studio?
Madonna: I wrote a lot of songs for the album, and then I went through a process of editing what I was going to keep or not. I feel that there is something that links all the songs together, a common theme having to do with Catholicism, family, relationships, things like that. I had written a lot of other songs, but I didn’t feel they went with the theme, so I cast them aside.
Becky Johnson: How would you say you’ve mature as an artist with this record?
Madonna: Well, my first couple of albums I would say came from the little girl in me, who is interested only in having people like me, in being entertaining and charming and frivolous and sweet. And this new one is the adult side of me, which is concerned with being brutally honest.
Becky Johnson: Do you think acting and making music are very similar? Do they require you to use the same aspects of your personality?
Madonna: Yeah. Definitely. I used to think they were different, because I felt with music you could be more revealing. I felt music was more of a personal statement, and acting was more about being someone else. But now I realize that acting is really about being yourself too. It’s about being true to yourself, about being honest, and so is music. In music you can choose to be a certain kind of character, if you wish, but you use your experience to fill that character’s shoes. So I think they are very similar.
Becky Johnson: Of the films and plays you’ve done, which do you think best shows your abilities as an actress?
Madonna: None of them. Not yet.
Becky Johnson: Why?
Madonna: I don’t think I’ve had a great part to play yet. There have been moments in each movie where I feel I’ve really explored things or done what I set out to do, but nothing as a whole.
Becky Johnson: Is there any character you’re dying to play?
Madonna: Yeah, Lee Miller. I think she’s great. I love the idea of doing Evita, but that’s just because she’s an incredibly complex and interesting woman. I’m not dying to do it, but it’s awfully intriguing to me.
Becky Johnson: I thought you were supposed to do Evita.
Madonna: I was, but it didn’t work out.
Becky Johnson: What do you do to prepare yourself for a role?
Madonna: It’s all emotional. If I’m attracted tot he character, then I’m attracted to something emotionally. That’s the main thing that helps me get into it.
Becky Johnson: Do you take the character home with you every night after work?
Madonna: No, but I’m incredibly affected by whatever role I’m playing. When I did Speed-the-Plow this summer, I felt the girl I played was extremely defeated. And I felt defeated all summer. I didn’t feel she had a lot of focus or ultimately knew what she wanted to do with herself. And I felt that she lost in the end, she didn’t have whatever tools she needed to get herself out of the situation she was in. And the effects of that really showed on me. I did some photo sessions last summer, and when I look at the pictures I see a totally different person. I didn’t feel confident. I didn’t feel my usual ballsy self. I just felt really… “defeated” is the best word to use. And that actually influenced everything I did, because it made me very sad.
I was writing my album during that time. Because of the state of mind I was in, I dealt with a lot of sadness in my life that I hadn’t dealt with in a long time, things like my mother’s death and certain relationships. I started to explore all of that every night when I would do the play. Especially for the last scene, when I had to walk onstage being really upset and frightened. I would sit in my dressing room with all the lights off, waiting for that scene, and I would force myself to think of something really painful. I did it every night, and I purged myself that way. It was like a goal I set. I would say, tonight I’m going to work this problem out. I need to think about this, or the possibility of this terrible thing happening. These little psychological exercises. Facing my fears.
Becky Johnson: What was it like working with Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver? Were they very supportive?
Madonna: Yeah. They were there for me, but then never went out of their way unless I asked for it. When I was doing the play I thought, God, they’re not really very generous, or they’re not really giving me that much. They made me stand on my own. They treated me like an equal. They didn’t give me any training wheels.
Becky Johnson: What drew you to the play in the first place?
Madonna: It’s weird. I have this thing about David Mamet, in spite of how chauvinistic he is. There’s a sense of rhythm and music in his language that I think is beautiful. I’d written him a fan letter when I saw House of Games. I thought it was a great movie. And then, when I was in New York doing this movie called Bloodhounds of Broadway, I was having dinner with Mike Nichols, and he told me David Mamet had written a new play. He said, “You should do it.” So I just kind of went for it.
Becky Johnson: And that was before you had even read the play?
Madonna: Yeah. And then I read it. I don’t know, I can’t even say why. I was driven. I was blindly driven to do it.
Becky Johnson: Do you think part of that has to do with the fact that you like to challenge yourself to try new forms?
Madonna: Yes. But things just come up in my life and I feel like I’m supposed to do them. I’m supposed to be doing Dick Tracy right now. I was supposed to write the songs for my album. I was supposed to do that play. And if I don’t feel I’m supposed to do something, I won’t do it. I believe there are no accidents, that everything happens for a reason.
Becky Johnson: This is one Catholic girl who believes in the preordained plan.
Madonna: Oh yeah, definitely.
Becky Johnson: Would you describe yourself as political, or politically involved at all?
Madonna: Well, I didn’t vote, so I guess I’m not.
Becky Johnson: OK, let me rephrase the question. Are you motivated by political concerns?
Madonna: Yeah, I am. I would say that I am subconsciously more than consciously so. I’m aware of things. And my involvement has mainly been giving money to causes that I think are worthwhile. I have the resources to help people, so I do. But in the typical way that one would describe being political, I’m not.
Becky Johnson: You said in a recent interview that you’re drawn to things that illustrate the sadness of life. Why is that?
Madonna: I don’t know why. Because life is sad. And that’s why I try to be happy, because life is so sad. And because sadness is a teacher, and happiness is really a gift.
Becky Johnson: And how would you define love?
Madonna: [long pause] Love is like breathing. You just have to do it.
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